What We Discuss with Zach Weinersmith:
- How tethered to reality are Elon Musk’s grand plans for the human colonization of Mars? Shouldn’t we focus on ensuring the sustainability of our current world before investing in centuries-long efforts to squeeze life out of a dead planet?
- With current technology, how well can human bodies be protected against prolonged exposure to radiation, extreme temperature fluctuation, and lesser gravity on the Red Planet and the Lunar surface?
- The economics of farming, mining, and extracting resources in space.
- The political, legal, and ethical considerations of space colonization.
- If now’s not the most prudent time to hurl our species into the cold, uncaring void, then when?
- And much more…
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Humankind has long dreamed of cavorting with the lights of the night sky and homesteading on distant worlds. The glowing lunar surface has beckoned our ancestors from seemingly close-enough-to-touch proximity ever since evolving eyes to behold its splendor. The 20th-century Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union gave way to the Space Race that sent earthlings into orbit for the first time, landed people on the moon, and launched countless instruments into space to extend humanity’s view of the Solar system and beyond. But now, over 50 years since Neil Armstrong left his famous footprint in the lunar regolith, it seems like humans should have a greater permanent presence in space. Where are our moonbases? Where are the bootprints on Mars? Where are our space hotels? Let’s go!
But wait! Not so fast. On this episode, we’re joined by Zach Weinersmith, co-author (with Kelly Weinersmith) of A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? Here, we discuss the hard-science complexities of space exploration and colonization that tend to get glossed over by the media, the political and ethical considerations of exporting human interests out of this world, the economics of extracting resources in space, and, if the time isn’t now to expand our reach into the extraterrestrial, then when? Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Miss our conversation with science champion and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson? Make sure to catch up with episode 327: Neil deGrasse Tyson | Astrophysics for People in a Hurry!
Thanks, Zach Weinersmith!
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Resources from This Episode:
- A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith | Amazon
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
- Zach Weinersmith | Website
- Zach Weinersmith | Patreon
- Zach Weinersmith | Mastodon
- Space Colonization Won’t Look Anything Like the Frontier | Foreign Policy
944: Zach Weinersmith | Out-of-This-World Hurdles to Colonizing Mars
This transcript is yet untouched by human hands. Please proceed with caution as we sort through what the robots have given us. We appreciate your patience!
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Special thanks to US Bank for sponsoring this episode of the Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:04] Coming up next on the Jordan Harbinger show.
[00:00:07] Zach Weinersmith: What's called microgravity? Just you can think of it as no gravity reliably that does all sorts of bad things to your body. Notably, you lose something like 1% of bone density in your hips per month. You also lose muscle strength very quickly. You reliably lose vision in space. This is one of the lesser known things about space, is that people are actually sent up with glasses to adjust to the expected vision loss, and that doesn't come back. There's just a thing that happens in space.
[00:00:36] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On the Jordan Harbinger show. We decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. Our mission is to help you become a better informed, more critical thinker through long form conversations with a variety of amazing folks, from spies to CEOs, athletes, authors, thinkers, performers, even the occasional arms dealer, drug trafficker, four star general or Hollywood filmmaker.
[00:01:03] And if you're new to the show or you wanna tell your friends about the show, I suggest our episode starter packs. These are collections of our favorite episodes on persuasion and negotiation, psychology, geopolitics, disinformation, cyber warfare, China, North Korea, crime and cults, and more to help new list.
[00:01:17] Listeners get a taste of everything we do here on the show. Just visit Jordan harbinger.com/start or search for us in your Spotify app to get started today on the show, my friend Zach Wiener Smith on growing up being bullied because of your last name. No, I'm, I'm kidding. Sorry, Zach. Today we're actually gonna be talking about colonizing space.
[00:01:33] Is it possible to colonize the moon? What about Mars? What problems will humans face living off of the earth? How do we create a biosphere, for example, you know, a place where people can live without dying immediately. How do we generate power? How do we get enough food? How do you raise a family? What type of government will we have?
[00:01:50] What about like asteroids and space junk radiation? There's so much to think about when making these bold leaps or as they are right now, bold statements about how humanity may one day expand outwards from the earth and beyond. So we're doing a deep dive today into the details of what that might look like here on the show with Zach Weiner Smith.
[00:02:10] Here we go.
[00:02:14] Zach, thanks for doing the show. This topic is quite interesting and it's, it's all the rage, right? You get Elon saying, we're gonna colonize Mars. He's like, I'm gonna die on Mars. Still time for that, I suppose, but probably not in the way that he thinks. In a thriving metropolis of a city on Mars. I would say this is a terrible way to begin an interview, but I'm Your last name is Wiener Smith, which?
[00:02:36] It's Wiener. Wiener. Wiener. Oh, it's not even like, okay. 'cause if you look at the German, it would be Weiner Smith. That would be nice. Right? If that would be nice. That was kind of where I was going with this. I'm just thinking like, man, first grade bullies seldom split that hair between, well that's actually, if you go by the German, it's Weiner Smith, so we shouldn't shove him in a locker
[00:02:55] Zach Weinersmith: right now.
[00:02:56] Well, no. So my, my maiden name is Wiener. Kelly's last name was Smith. And we, we thought this was funny. And my, my 9-year-old is just realizing that it's funny, it's still funny for her now. Right? What happens in three years is gonna be interesting.
[00:03:09] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. Because I was thinking it doesn't even make sense, right?
[00:03:12] Because VNA just means somebody who's from Vita, essentially. Right? But then Smith is what it sounds like, like a blacksmith or somebody smiths something. So I'm like, who's smithing people from Vienna? It doesn't sound like a real, but then I looked at my own name and I was like, there's no sense to any of this crap anymore Anyway.
[00:03:30] Zach Weinersmith: You're, you're not a harbinger of anything.
[00:03:31] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Like, I mean maybe, but also like you really have to stretch the definition out in order to make the shoe fit. So. I don't know. I just remember reading this and I was like, of course these guys are space geeks because you know how far away from these boys can I
[00:03:47] Zach Weinersmith: get Mars?
[00:03:47] Sounds good. That's right. That's no. The old joke is, the reason astronauts all come from Ohio is they're trying to get as far away as possible from
[00:03:55] Jordan Harbinger: Ohio. That actually makes a lot of sense as a guy from Michigan. I get it, Uhhuh. Alright, let's talk about colonizing mars slash space in the first place.
[00:04:04] 'cause again, it's an exciting prospect. I know you're gonna rain on our parade, which is fine. I think a reality check every now and then is probably a good idea. Especially because look, no shade on Elon. The dude's done some amazing stuff from SpaceX to Tesla and I was a early-ish investor in Tesla and that turned out really great.
[00:04:25] And so look, no shade on the guy. He is done some amazing stuff. But there's also stuff where it's like, I paid for a self-driving car and I'll be damned. I drove that thing myself. The last, well, forever. I've never had it drive me anywhere. Some of that is 'cause I'm scared and some of it is because it doesn't work that well.
[00:04:41] Right? And the Mars thing seems like another, Hey, we're gonna do this, it's gonna be within 50 years and then in 200 years we're gonna be like, so we thought it was gonna be 50 years, but now we're saying within 30 years we're definitely gonna start doing that. And it's gonna be like, wait a minute, this is my great-grandfather wrote about this as a thing that almost seemed like it was happening now.
[00:05:02] And we're just building launch vehicles. That's kind of how this looks to me now after reading your book especially.
[00:05:08] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Yeah. So, uh, let me, let me give you the positive case before I come in with the bummer. Sure. The positive case would be essentially that the launch technology really has been revolutionized.
[00:05:19] There are some people who, because Elon Musk is kind of a jerk, especially when he gets on his personal social media network. Yeah. Want to make it out that he's just a grifter all the way down. But SpaceX has been genuinely revolutionary new technology. It is an idea that's been around since the early days of space, which is reusable rockets, and they actually got it done.
[00:05:37] Before, like every space agency in the world. Mm-Hmm. And they actually dropped the prices. You can actually look at the prices of like space launch going back to the forties. They dropped drastically in the early space age and then they just absolutely hit a plateau. They arguably get even more expensive.
[00:05:52] So like, you know how everyone was miserable about space from like 1980 to 2015. Mm-Hmm. All the dreams died. That's why the price stayed high, but it started collapsing. And that's mostly down to SpaceX. So that's like, that's the case for optimism. I really are gonna be able to do a lot more in space. So
[00:06:07] Jordan Harbinger: it is getting cheaper and cheaper to launch things into space.
[00:06:10] That's great. And I know there was that plateau for a while. I. Can you give us an idea of how the cost of putting things into space has dropped over the years? Maybe you can choose like a household item, you know, to mail or mail to send this mug to space would've been like 10 grand in in 1968 and now it's like $4.
[00:06:27] I don't know. Why does that
[00:06:28] Zach Weinersmith: look, that's actually not too far off. The number we used to always give like 10 years ago was $10,000 a pound, which like, one way to say it would be an Apple seed would cost about $10 to send a space. Wow. Right. So it's zany expensive under SpaceX. I mean, you know, without getting into the weeds, 'cause it can be very hard to make comparisons between depending on what you're doing.
[00:06:45] But like now it's more like a thousand to 3000 per pound. Something in that range, depending on what you're doing. Right, okay. So it's like genuinely a change, right?
[00:06:54] Jordan Harbinger: It's dropped 70 to 90%. Yeah. That's really amazing. But it seems like we need it to get to 99.9% cheaper before it's like yeah, let's send a skyscraper up with a rockets attached to it or whatever the plan
[00:07:08] Zach Weinersmith: is.
[00:07:08] Yeah, I think that's probably right. You need it to keep getting cheaper. But I will say, you know, it's worth noting the cheapness opens up other stuff. So if you look at the James Webb telescope, part of why those things are so expensive is they have to be crammed. Every last bit of mass is precious in these fairings.
[00:07:23] Mm-Hmm. So you get to a world where you have much bigger ships that are much cheaper, you can do a lot more off the shelf stuff. You can like waste more space. I see. Yeah. So, so there is the whole economy, I'm trying, this is the optimistic side of this. This is why people are really geeked out, is because there genuinely is a change happening.
[00:07:37] Jordan Harbinger: This makes sense though. So for, 'cause that almost went over my head, so I'm gonna assume that some people maybe didn't pick up on that. So right now you've gotta pack this massive satellite, a delivery vehicle and all the tech and all the solar panels that unfurl and whatever into the smallest possible package.
[00:07:54] That's the lightest possible to launch it. So you're using all these well space, age materials, super expensive stuff. Hey, we need a custom X, Y, Z widget that fits into this tiny little space and this weird thing. 'cause this is all we have left. And they're like, great, we'll make it for $10 million. But once it gets cheap enough, it's like.
[00:08:11] No, we're just gonna buy a bunch of like space proof Apple Mac Studio computers and shove them in a rack and then launch those. And that's like, oh, that's a million dollars instead of a million dollars for the piece that holds the thing
[00:08:24] Zach Weinersmith: together. Yeah, exactly. And in addition, you know, you take starlink for example, you could estimate roughly speaking of this new giant rocket SpaceX is working on called Starship Works.
[00:08:33] You could launch something like say three or 400 mini setss per launch. So you're now also getting economies of scale. Mm-Hmm. So it really is, I don't wanna take anything away from this aspect of it. This is like amazing stuff that's happening that is really
[00:08:45] Jordan Harbinger: world changing. Yeah. That part, I wanna keep it optimistic, right?
[00:08:48] Because even though we're gonna poke holes in the, the balloon slash ran on the parade, whatever metaphor we wanna use, I don't want people to be like, oh, we're never going to spa because never's a long time. Right. And it's frankly, almost one thing that I will say Elon and all the other pro space folks have done is if you'd asked me like.
[00:09:07] 20 years ago, if we were ever gonna colonize space, I would be like, absolutely not. Definitely nothing in my lifetime. And I don't mean a city on Mars, I mean like anybody. I'd be like, no, it's just science fiction. Now I'm thinking, okay, we just, maybe a pause in global hostilities would be great and some resource dedication to this, but it's not impossible.
[00:09:28] There's just ways to do this that didn't exist and certainly were not in my mind a couple of decades ago. And that that's more important I think, than people realize, is once you get people to believe that something is possible in large numbers, people who are talented start going into those fields when their kids and they start studying this stuff, and then you get this critical mass of people that are like, we could do this.
[00:09:48] And that's how stuff like this gets done, period. I would imagine. Yeah, a
[00:09:52] Zach Weinersmith: hundred percent. I mean, I really think, you know, part of why space settlement is a thing that's talked about a lot is it's very inspiring and it helps to get a lot of young, talented engineers to want to come to work at a place like SpaceX, even though they're like work hours are notoriously brutal and difficult.
[00:10:08] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Ev a couple of ex SpaceX friends and they're like, you don't understand, like, I work at Apple now. It's way more chill. And if you know anybody who works at Apple, they're like, what are you talking about? Apple is not chill at all, but SpaceX is something else. So if the bottleneck isn't cost. What is it?
[00:10:23] It's something else. What is it?
[00:10:25] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, I would say it's a variety of things, so I'll give you an example of one that to us is very important, which is we know almost nothing about whether humans can reproduce in space. We actually, strictly speaking, don't even know if humans can mate in space, though I'd, I'd say it's almost certainly yes.
[00:10:41] But conception development, everything you have to do to have a civilization, right? Not just like an outpost, like an antarctic base type of thing. Okay. We don't know how to do that. The science, like there, there's a tiny amount of science that's been done on space stations. It's totally unsystematic. It's like we have one thing with six rats over here and a thing done on quail legs over here.
[00:11:00] And some, uh, you know, livestock sperm was sent to space over there. But we don't have a kind of like program to answer this
[00:11:06] Jordan Harbinger: question, right? I'm imagining recruiting a space program. And they're like, what are we gonna be doing? And they're like, you guys are gonna be banging a lot. And filming it and filming it and sending it to all of us for analysis.
[00:11:18] It's like, I don't know how many people are signing up for that. You know, I
[00:11:20] Zach Weinersmith: was never able to track it down. But there's a persistent story. Which is probably not true, but in the waning days of the last Soviet Space Station, when they sort of lurched into hyper capitalism, there was a proposal to shoot a pornographic film on, on space station mirror.
[00:11:34] Oh man. But I don't, there, there are legends that crop up all over the place with this stuff. There's a persistent legend that someone somewhere has had sex in space. We disagree about this. Kelly thinks it's probably happened. I think it probably hasn't, but it's, you know, one of those questions for the ages, I guess.
[00:11:49] But is the whole
[00:11:50] Jordan Harbinger: thing is that it's not like there's gotta be almost no area of that whole thing that's not That's right. Monitored. So if they're watching you do all this other stuff, I guess if you can really get over the fact that somebody's watching you live at 24 7, I don't know. It seems a little unlikely, but, but who do I, what do I know?
[00:12:05] What do I know? All right, let me back up a little bit. Yeah. I know one of the bottlenecks is creating a biosphere. Yes. Tell me, well, first of all, what is a biosphere and what is the problem here? Because we've made biospheres on earth. Right. The biosphere too. I remember that. I remember the crappy poly shore movie.
[00:12:21] Yeah. Of the same name. But why is this so difficult? What are we missing from that? Yeah,
[00:12:26] Zach Weinersmith: yeah. So to explain what it is and why you would want it. So a biosphere also called a closed loop ecology. But the basic idea is you have a sort of sealed bubble and inside it you put plant, animal, bacterial life. And it's just self-sustaining.
[00:12:40] It doesn't turn into like goo, right? It doesn't die off, doesn't get out of control in some way. It just exists and does all the stuff that Earth does for you, right? You generate oxygen, the plants absorb carbon dioxide and you have these loops, these ecological loops. The reason you want that in space is 'cause space is awful everywhere.
[00:12:57] Without exception, the moon is just terrible. There's obviously no air, but also like the ground is trying to kill you. Mm-Hmm. The soil can't make plants. Mars is similar. It has other problems. And so really what we are talking about when we're talking about putting a city on Mars, any kind of habitat on Mars is that you have to have one of these ecologies inside it, like a self-contained fake ecosystem that is not directly interacting with the outside world.
[00:13:20] Mm-Hmm. Right. Except in the sense of maybe absorbing like mass in that dirt from Mars. Could say with a lot of work, be ameliorated to be brought into the system, but mostly you're trying to not have a strong interaction other than to get sunlight. Can we do this? It's been a question that's been around since the sixties.
[00:13:36] The Soviets did some work on it that was kind of inconclusive. And then there's been a few experiments here and there, and the biggest one by far is the one you mentioned called Biosphere two. And by the way, there was no Biosphere one Biosphere one is Earth. They were being a little cheeky about it. Oh, I
[00:13:52] Jordan Harbinger: wondered about that.
[00:13:53] I'm like, we never hear about the first one. It must have just been a short-lived project. Whoops. Okay. That explains it. Okay. Yeah, that's fine. They,
[00:13:59] Zach Weinersmith: they did have prototypes, but so it was run by this kind of crazy guy. He's still alive, I think his name John Allen. It's kind of like a, A Steve Jobs before you could be Steve Jobs, like a guy who talks in tech, speak about kind of crazy stuff, but also does big projects.
[00:14:11] And so hence like the kind of artsy quality to the project. But essentially what it was is you had the facility that was about the size of three football fields and it was sealed. And eight humans went in and they survived for two years. In that sense, it was quite successful. The downside is, at one point they were suffocating, the system was absorbing oxygen out, and they didn't know that they couldn't figure out where the oxygen was going.
[00:14:35] It's a really weird thing to have in a sealed system for oxygen to just to disappear. Yeah. Yeah. It just turns out the structure was absorbing it like chemically. Wow. Also, they were like starving. They lost I think 10 to 18% of body weight and they weren't like. Chubby people. You can look at pictures like they're just running outta food.
[00:14:50] They weren't making it fast enough. And there, there were other problems I'd get into. They also were fighting, by the way, they didn't speak for like a year. There were two factions of Ford that hated each other. Oh my God. Yeah. There's a story at one point that got so bad. Two people from one side came and spit on a woman.
[00:15:03] I think it was two people at separate times the same day. It was like a coordinated strike,
[00:15:06] Jordan Harbinger: coordinated spitting. This is like a Seinfeld episode or something. Only totally. Scientists, you should know better, but I guess if you're starving and possibly suffocating and you've been with the same people for two years and you weren't sure how, yeah, I can, I'm not a guy you wanna put in a biosphere, let me put it that way.
[00:15:21] Yeah, definitely not a hundred
[00:15:22] Zach Weinersmith: percent. I wouldn't wanna do it either. You can only say it was a qualified success and it, you know, there could have been more going on. They only did one other run that got called off short because there was like financial mismanagement in fighting. Fun fact, by the way, the one of the guys who helped get it back or take over and finish the project off was Steve Bannon, uh, is like an early wait.
[00:15:41] Jordan Harbinger: The Steve Bannon that we're currently seeing the that guy. That one. Yeah. Okay.
[00:15:46] Zach Weinersmith: That's there, there is no more to that Fun fact. It's just one of the weirdest little Steve Bannon suddenly pops into my space science story, uh, and then leaves the scene.
[00:15:54] Jordan Harbinger: You like this has to be a different Steve Bannon. Right?
[00:15:56] Let's go over that. I did look, I did check. Yeah, I'm sure you did because otherwise you're like, wait a minute. I mean, I'm still mentally double taking from that. That seems so off brand. Well, okay.
[00:16:05] Zach Weinersmith: But it was, it was in, in the context of being part of a financial firm. Okay. So it's, uh, yeah, I see. Yeah, shees.
[00:16:10] Alright. But anyway, so that basically called off. We have some data from it. The people who worked on it still work on some of this stuff, but since then there's just been small scale experiments like in Europe and Japan and China. That's it. So the max scale we have is eight people. Right. So if you're talking about a million people on Mars who need to be supplied by a system like this, if it scales, if it's like the same size, right?
[00:16:30] Eight people need three acres, then you're talking about a greenhouse the size of Singapore to sustain the civilization on Mars. So the scale is insane.
[00:16:38] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Wow. Yeah. And that's like if everything goes right, because it sounds like if they were running out of food, there's just a lot that can go wrong.
[00:16:46] You don't wanna be like, we have exactly enough food, not a pound more for the right number of people. It's just like that's No, you want a nice little buffer there.
[00:16:54] Zach Weinersmith: A hundred percent. And so for example, on day one, I believe a biosphere, one of the women in the program, I think it was Jane Poynter, cut off the tip of her finger in a threshing machine.
[00:17:03] When you're not on Mars, you can actually, they literal leave the sim and go to a hospital. 'cause there was no hospital in the building. There was, you know, first aid and they put her fingertip back on. There was other stuff too, like they were just drawing power off the grid. They didn't have to build their own greenhouse like you would on Mars, you know, so there's stuff like that.
[00:17:19] Of course, there might be benefits to scale. It might be easier to run the system of it's much larger. We just don't know. And that's the big problem here is, is we don't know. And getting an answer to a question like that, like how does an ecosystem evolve over time at different scales is a really tricky scientific problem that'll take a long time to get and nobody is spending much money on it.
[00:17:37] Jordan Harbinger: is quite interesting. There's a lot of other little problems too that I, I took some very choice notes. This is a very difficult endeavor and I, I heard you say, and I love this by the way, going to Mars because the earth is messed up, would be like leaving a messy bedroom to go live in a toxic waste dump.
[00:17:52] That's how incompatible Mars, for example, is with human life compared to
[00:17:58] Zach Weinersmith: earth. Yeah. Yeah. I, I, I think it's really important to hit on this, 'cause I think people watch movies and you get the idea that Mars is kinda like, okay, it's like not great, but it's kinda like Arizona minus error or something, right?
[00:18:08] Mm-Hmm. But it turns out there's just lots of stuff you can't see in those movies or that doesn't get portrayed. And so, like, for example, about 1% of Martian soil is, is a chemical that messes up hormones. And so we don't know what long-term exposure to it does to adults. But what's really scary is you wanna talk about reproduction.
[00:18:24] Like what's that going to do to a developing child? Highly unclear. You'll obviously wanna not have it, but that's gonna be a huge amount of work. And, and one thing we know, one of the most important findings. From biosphere, from the experiments by the Soviets and other ones is that the people in these systems spend all their time just surviving.
[00:18:40] I think a biosphere was like six hour, or I'm sorry, six days a week were spent running the farm just to have enough to eat while starving and to drink and all that. And so, you know, you, if you're gonna also have to be cleansing the soil and you know, running your own power plant, you get in excess of 24 hours very quickly.
[00:18:56] There's other bad stuff about Mars too. I mean, so there are worldwide dust storms from time to time. That's despite the atmosphere being quite thin. So you, you still die if you go outside without a pressure suit. But there's enough atmosphere to whip up duff storms that blot out the sun, which is really bad for solar panels, presumably.
[00:19:11] Oh, yeah. Uh, it's gonna be embarrassing. Uh, so
[00:19:14] Jordan Harbinger: yeah. Yeah. I, I would say so if the perchlorates in the soil don't destroy your thyroid and make you stop growing when you're four years old, the lack of solar energy for days on end or weeks or however long those storms last, that could be a problem. I can see that being a problem.
[00:19:29] Where do we get energy then? Because if solar panels are sort of on off, and, and by the way, is Mars too far for solar panels that we have now to generate? I. Inappropriate amount of electricity.
[00:19:41] Zach Weinersmith: That's a really good question. So it, it is not, but it is pretty far. Right. So I, I, I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I believe it's, you get something like half as much solar power per panel on the surface of Mars.
[00:19:51] It, it's a little complicated 'cause you're farther out, but the atmosphere is thinner and Right. Blah, blah, blah. But the problem is, so theoretically that could be okay. And also because Mars has days that are weirdly earth-like they're about 24 hours, I think 24.7 mm. You would have a day night cycle and you would have light.
[00:20:06] But when you can expect regularly to lose your solar power for weeks at a time, it's like you either have to have an insanely good battery system. Or you need some other regular power source. Right? And so fossil fuels are out. There are no fossils on Mars unless there's a big surprise, right. Awaiting us.
[00:20:21] So you can't really do wind. There have been some zany proposals, but because the atmosphere is so thin, I think they'd have to be just these gigantic, mega, huge structures. You could maybe, you know, tap underground heat like we do on earth. Yeah, geothermal. Geothermal, yeah. That is apparently literally possible on, on Mars.
[00:20:37] But it's thought to be quite difficult. I mean, geothermal, you try to imagine setting up a geothermal system where there's no air and you're in these like wastes outside.
[00:20:45] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. You'd have to be able to drill towards the core of a planet while also basically being in space at the same time. Exactly.
[00:20:52] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah.
[00:20:52] So it's like literally possible. So usually we say that the best option until like some sci-fi stuff happens is you have a good old fashioned nuclear reactor. You ship up some uranium or plutonium. You run your reactor and for all the downsides to that, that some of your audience is imagining, it is a kind of like power source in a box that works night or day as one of the upsides, you're already kind of gonna be bathed in radiation.
[00:21:14] Yeah. At least of your
[00:21:15] Jordan Harbinger: concerns. I was gonna say the radiation thing, like at this point it's like a smoker being like, I think the jackhammer ring outside that bad for my health.
[00:21:23] Zach Weinersmith: That's exactly right. Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, you know, probably what you do is you go out some distance from your habitat, you dig a hole and you put it in there.
[00:21:31] You'll still have to have like people to operate it and stuff. But when you compare that to having to like clean like acres and acres and acres of solar panels in like doom, it's just probably the best option until some sort of, you know, crazy sci-fi tech comes along. I'd like to
[00:21:44] Jordan Harbinger: highlight your earlier point, which is colonizing Mars is not a solution for a messed up earth.
[00:21:49] And I, I like this for a few reasons. One, I think a lot of people are like, ah, climate change can't do anything about that. Plastics in the ocean can't do anything about that. Litter and garbage and lack of recycling and big oil and all this other can't do anything about that. It's fine. We're gonna go to Mars.
[00:22:04] And it's like, again, you're leaving a messy bedroom for a toxic waste dump. This is not just like the, oh good, we get a second crack at things. It's not really like that. We joke
[00:22:14] Zach Weinersmith: like if you had Earth, we actually looked up what is the worst case climate change scenario. Anyone's predicting. Take that and like add nuclear war and any other catastrophe you like, like I don't know, like there's a hole in the earth and demons are pouring out.
[00:22:27] That's still a planet where you can breathe. And where like they have gravity. They have gravity, gravity's nice. We haven't even gotten into that. Gra, you know, the lack of gravity probably has all sorts of bad, long-term effects we don't even know about. So yeah, the, any idea that in the, anywhere in the near term space is gonna save us from any calamity is absurd.
[00:22:44] It's just too hard, too expensive. And also just the general idea that we're going to be launching like millions, billions of tons of stuff to space, requiring hundreds of thousands of skyscraper size rocket launches every day. That's going to improve the environment is just absurd. Yeah, it's unlikely.
[00:23:02] Let's say I, you know, I'm sure there's, there's some space nerd who's angry at me right now,
[00:23:05] Jordan Harbinger: but, well, basically the sub name of this show, the subtext of this show is pissing off bunches of listeners for things you'd never imagine. Like, I get it when I do an episode where somebody's like, Hey, plastic's in the ocean, artist being of a problem as we thought, you shouldn't have let this guy say his thing.
[00:23:18] I get why people are angry about that. I understand why when somebody says Hamas is not a terrorist organization. People are angry about that. I'm angry about that, but the thing that's gonna trigger someone in this episode is gonna be something that you and I both think is completely benign. That's how this works.
[00:23:32] Yes. That's how this works. So don't even try to not piss people off. It's not worth it.
[00:23:36] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. No, I, I think what I've found is. All ideas about going to space. They're kind of bound up with utopianism. Like, whatever you think is wrong with Earth will be better over there. Mm-Hmm. Because you can get a clean break with your people and fix it all.
[00:23:49] And it's just like there are all sorts of different scenarios and they just don't hold up. 'cause humans are just gonna be people over there only like surrounded by poison.
[00:23:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. And unfortunately surrounded by other people. Yes. Which is what happened in Biosphere two, which seems like it was a big problem.
[00:24:05] And in fact, I know you've said that space settlements might actually favor autocratic authoritarian governments. That is a really interesting point. That makes perfect sense to me because it's probably gonna have to start off. Basically like a military outpost, just because the stakes are so high, you can't have people being like, I got freedom of poking holes in the wall if I want to.
[00:24:28] You can't do that. You have to have people that are all rowing in the same direction if you're gonna survive in space. But, and this is nerdy, but it reminds me of there's a Call of Duty, which is a video game. There's an installment where the Mars Settlement Defense Force essentially attacks the earth because they're like, Hey, we don't need these guys anymore.
[00:24:45] We have our own planet. We got our own thing going. And it's a totalitarian military regime along the lines of, I guess maybe Sparta or whatever, I'm a little less worried about Mars settlement defense force attacking as I, that scenario is a little outta mind, but I think you might be right about autocracy in a place like Mars or, or in space anywhere, at least for the first few slash several generations of humans there, because how else are you gonna function?
[00:25:09] How else are you gonna create a society like that? And it's tough growing up in an environment like that ask anybody who defected from North Korea, for example, and it, it's gonna be tough. To transition to what might look like a functioning democracy from authoritarianism, because those values have to be there somewhere behind the scenes.
[00:25:25] And I'm not sure how you do that unless you have really good contact with Earth the whole time. Right? Yeah.
[00:25:30] Zach Weinersmith: I, I, I think there, there's a good case for that. There's a, a scholar named Charles Ell, who writes a lot about this, about, like, as an example, if you're living in a built structure on Mars, there is some source of oxygen under somebody's control.
[00:25:44] Mm-Hmm. In a way that's just not true on earth. Right? No matter, like the worst company town you can imagine, I. Like your boss didn't have control over oxygen. The closest analog sometimes uses submarines, and we actually did, we read some submarine books and we found a case of a guy who at least claimed he tuned the oxygen up or down to like adjust mood in the submarine.
[00:26:04] So like, apparently people are capable of this certain thing, huh? I mean, you
[00:26:08] Jordan Harbinger: hear it from casinos and it's not true apparently the whole Yeah, I, I can see that. Look, I, I mean he who controls the spice controls the universe. That's a soundbite I should have gotten for this show. But it's, if you wanna put down a rebellion in one corner of your space settlement, all you have to do is be like, well, I'm turning the air off.
[00:26:23] If you guys don't calm down. I mean, that'll do it. Yeah.
[00:26:26] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. You could even, I mean, you know, if you wanna get really nasty, all you have to do is crank the CO2 level up to about one, one and a half percent. People start getting headaches and so you can. Give them carbon, uh, ssis and just make 'em chill.
[00:26:37] Yeah. Oh yeah. So yeah, I know it is a problem. And then that's the question is like, you know, it's one thing if, if a bunch of people wanna voluntarily go live this lifestyle, by all means, but if they decide they wanna have children, then it seems to me to be like an ethical nightmare. Uh, that should probably be stopped.
[00:26:52] I mean, this, this is something we get into. 'cause sometimes we'll, we'll talk about like, well we have concerns about like ethical things. And someone will say, well, you're just a bunch of nies and me and Elon are going to Mars and you can't stop us and you shouldn't be able to stop us at Twitch. I say like, if you just wanna personally go and hurt yourself, that's awesome.
[00:27:09] Have an adventure. I would like to watch the movie. I like reading about like Arctic Explorers. They're kind of crazy, but awesome. But if you're talking about like having children or setting up some kind of rival state structure, these sorts of things, then there's a conversation to be had about what the rights of other people on earth are.
[00:27:26] Jordan Harbinger: You are listening to the Jordan Harbinger show with our guest Zach Wiener Smith. We'll be right back. This episode is sponsored in part by Shopify. Ever wondered about things so incredibly efficient? They seem almost magical. Think of the ease of online banking, the wonder of wireless charging, or the simplicity of contactless payments.
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[00:29:54] This is not cringey, it's down to earth. Pardon the pun. Uh, as for the episode, there's no awkward strategies or cheesy tactics that are gonna make you look like a jerk or make the people that you're trying to keep in touch with feel gross about you. It's just gonna make you a better connector, a better colleague, a better friend, a better peer.
[00:30:09] And six minutes a day is all it takes. And many of the guests on the show, they already subscribe and contribute to the course. So come join us. You'll be in smart company where you belong. You can find the email@example.com. Now back to Zach Weiner Smith. Concurrent construction gear even function on Mars temperatures.
[00:30:28] Because I look at construction sites around here, and I'm, I grew up in Michigan. I live in California now, and I, I just thought, wow, these guys out here, they have it much, much easier than they did in Michigan. They gotta go in the winter and they're, and then I thought to myself, okay, the winter, now imagine that's way colder.
[00:30:44] There's no air and you'd have to modify the engine, right? You can't run a diesel engine on Mars with no atmosphere, oxygen, whatever. I would imagine. But even then. What about the treads on a bulldozer? What about a crane? Don't those require certain amounts of gravity to stay put and other You have to redesign all this stuff, not to mention just temperature stuff.
[00:31:06] Temperature issues. Yeah,
[00:31:07] Zach Weinersmith: so this sort of thing is really important. One of my favorite cranky rants by an astro guy was he was talking about there are these proposals for melting some of the water on the moon for all sorts of uses, and he was complaining about a proposal that said, you know, we'll use all this water and here's how we're gonna recycle it and all this stuff.
[00:31:23] It didn't mention that part of getting it involved something like an eight mile traverse through the darkness in like whatever it was, negative 200 Fahrenheit on the surface of the moon, which of course has no air among other problems. And there's, I think a kind of like tendency for people who've never had to do this sort of work to think we can just run some numbers.
[00:31:44] Mm-Hmm. As an example, we talked to a guy who had worked on lunar rovers and he said a really hard problem, he's just making a lubricant that can survive you alternating between like 600 degrees of Fahrenheit on a two weeks basis as it does on the moon. And so, yeah, I mean actually once you start thinking about this, it gets really crazy.
[00:32:01] Like if you have something that's depends on a heavy weight dropping, well you have less gravity, right? So you need, you need more weight to get the same oomph when it slams into the surface. Mm-Hmm. And then you just think about like the pressure. So as an example, you in a movie, if your buddy has a problem outside the space station, you throw in the pressure suit and you run out.
[00:32:18] In real life, if you do that, you will get the bends, you'll get nitrogen bubbles in your blood 'cause of the pressure change, and you will just die. You actually have to go into an airlock, and there are different ways for doing this, but something like say a half hour to an hour has to be spent breathing pure oxygen to get the nitrogen outta your system.
[00:32:34] So it's like there's all this stuff that makes sense until you start getting finicky about how it's actually going to work when an actual person has to actually go do the thing.
[00:32:41] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that's interesting. I hadn't thought about that. Tell me about this moon thing. 600 degrees fahr. Does the moon change 600 degrees every two weeks?
[00:32:50] What is, I had no idea.
[00:32:52] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. So the moon, on the moon a day is two Earth weeks long, right? So meaning like you get 14 days of light, 14 days of darkness, and also no atmosphere, which would kind of spread out the ambient temperature, right? You're just blasted or not. I see. Yeah. So temperatures tend to get really, really, really hot.
[00:33:09] Like hot as an oven, and then really, really, really cold. Much colder than ice. And so obviously that's havoc for a little rover that needs to survive all these conditions. Also, what we do to get them to survive is you put a little bit of plutonium in there to just keep 'em toasty. Hmm. Uh,
[00:33:24] Jordan Harbinger: and, uh, wouldn't want that in my pocket though, as a human, I don't think,
[00:33:27] Zach Weinersmith: well, you know, if you, if you have enough cladding, uh, maybe depend on where you're holding it.
[00:33:32] But, but keep it,
[00:33:34] Jordan Harbinger: keep it family friendly. That's, I'm
[00:33:35] Zach Weinersmith: sorry. Um, yeah. Uh, yeah. So you get these huge temperature swings and it's a real problem for all sorts of reasons. So we go back to like solar power. So you say to yourself, well, can we use solar power? Well, it's gonna switch off two weeks at a time. The only exception to that is if you set up, up at the poles.
[00:33:51] Right. If you're, if the north or south pole, you get grazed by the sun, most of the time there are even a couple tiny areas where like 95% of the time there's light. But it, that's very unusual. Most of the moon is not that way.
[00:34:02] Jordan Harbinger: Hmm. You know, I, I just never thought about the temperature on the moon. I guess I just thought it was probably like a brisk morning.
[00:34:10] In Michigan at worst, not like negative 600 degrees or whatever, negative 400 degrees slash 400 plus whatever it is. I never thought the moon would actually get hot. That for sure is a surprise. Yeah. So that seems miserable and yes, we're flip flopping between the moon and Mars, but I guess at this point, what's the difference?
[00:34:28] It's mostly just settling space. What about the building materials themselves? You know, my house is largely made outta wood and metal. That's fine. When you're talking about maybe zero degrees up to 150 in the most extreme, you know, areas. But. Now we're talking about negative 200 or negative 300 to positive 300.
[00:34:47] You can't just build something out of wood or metal. It's just gonna melt or shatter or whatever,
[00:34:52] Zach Weinersmith: right? Yeah. So there are parts of Mars that are a little more temperate near the equator, but if you're gonna do the moon, you're gonna have these huge temperature swings. The solution is pretty much the same in every mission proposal, which is you need to be under a huge amount of soil.
[00:35:04] So there are different ways you could do that. You could set a sort of tin can to the surface and just, you know, using the construction equipment we just said would be really hard, you know, a huge pile of, of what's called regolith. This messed up soil on the moon on top. And what that does is it just kind of protects you from those big temperature swings.
[00:35:19] Kinda like if you were a mole. A more interesting proposal, which to me is like separate from whether I think it's a good idea, is maybe the most awesome idea, which is the moon isn't really seismically active anymore, but it once was, which meant there used to be flowing lava in places if you've ever been to Hawaii.
[00:35:34] Yeah. Or I'm told they had these, yeah. Yeah. So you've been like lava tube caves, right? Or maybe I Oh yeah. They have those on the moon. They have them on the moon only. They're much, much bigger. Maybe as much as a hundred times bigger. Wow.
[00:35:44] Jordan Harbinger: You could drive any size, well, multiple, a hundred times bigger.
[00:35:48] Insane. Right. That's like a freeway more maybe even
[00:35:52] Zach Weinersmith: to me it's like if you were going to pick a mission for sheer awesomeness just about anywhere in the solar system, sending somebody into one of these would be top of my list. Wow. But from a settlement perspective, the exciting thing would be instead of like landing a tin can and piling stuff on it, or else trying to build stuff out of the surface, you go into this cave and you have some kind of say spray on sealant and you just seal up the cave or a chunk of the cave.
[00:36:17] Then you pump it full of air and whatever else you need and then you've got a little pocket and now you can just build in there. Right? So not everything has to be defended against space. The cave is doing it for you. Hmm. So that's a pretty typical proposal with the reel. That's cool. Yeah, it is awesome.
[00:36:31] Right? I mean, you just talk about like, I'm always amazed people have never heard of these, but my understanding is they were only really understood starting about 20 years ago. There's actually not that much where everybody gets excited about Mars. There's a lot of scientists who are like, why don't we send more stuff to the moon?
[00:36:43] The moon is amazing. Yeah, that's, I
[00:36:45] Jordan Harbinger: just had no idea. They were so massive too. 'cause it's so amazing how big that must be. 'cause those LABA LABA tubes in Hawaii, you can walk through those,
[00:36:53] Zach Weinersmith: right? Yeah. They're like cathedrals.
[00:36:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. So something that's a hundred times bigger, you could fit my neighborhood in there.
[00:37:00] Zach Weinersmith: No. Yeah, it's crazy. You can imagine, uh, you know, whole cities, you know, and, and the only real downside, other than like it being difficult to get into these things and there's some questions about structural stability, but it's probably fine, is just that there aren't many. And so, you know, where it gets scary is like if the US goes first and then China says, Hey, you took the best spot.
[00:37:19] I don't know, does it get weird? But yeah, if you were gonna set up a settlement, that would be one of the cooler places to do it. Well, we'll talk
[00:37:25] Jordan Harbinger: about what get weird might mean, because I have a feeling things will get weird with space. Before we get into that though, Mars has a bunch of CO2 on it. Plants love CO2.
[00:37:36] Is there a fit here? Can we terraform Mars somehow by putting plants that eat the CO2 and make oxygen? Or is that just gonna cause all kinds of other issues?
[00:37:44] Zach Weinersmith: Yes and no. Okay, so setting aside total terraforming for a second and I'll come back to it. The big upside to CO2 is, as you say, plants will take it in, build themselves, and then spit out oxygen, which is just great.
[00:37:58] On the moon, there is very little carbon in the soil. This is often skipped, so you literally cannot grow plants in it. You can't do it. Mm. On Mars with that CO2, just floating around for the taking, you can grow plants, they can release oxygen. You do need, and I won't get into the chemistry, but you need a hydrogen source if you wanna also get water.
[00:38:13] But if you have that source, you have water, you have oxygen, you can even make fuel in the form of methane, which is just a flammable gas that you could also use to like fuel up a rocket or make, uh, like fuel for a buggy on the martian surface. So it's incredibly convenient in terms of terraforming, meaning turning Mars into at least something like earth.
[00:38:34] So I don't think just by having plants you could do that. 'cause the atmosphere is really thin. So even if you cracked all the oxygen out of that CO2, I don't think it'd be nearly enough. Typical proposals call for something like slamming, like redirecting comets into the poles of Mars. Or even like a huge amount of nuclear weapons.
[00:38:51] And the idea there is just you're, you're gonna, the poles have water. And so if you spew so much water into the atmosphere, you'll get a greenhouse effect like we're trying to avoid on earth, which would be desirable on Mars to some extent. What would
[00:39:03] Jordan Harbinger: that do though? I'm confused. We would somehow smash a comet or a giant bunch of nukes into Mars.
[00:39:09] The frozen water would go in the air and
[00:39:12] Zach Weinersmith: then what? No, no water vapor's. A greenhouse gas actually. Yeah.
[00:39:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Okay, now I see what you mean. So it vaporizes a bunch of water because of the explosion and then the atmosphere. Has water in it. But wouldn't that be temporary or am I just not understanding
[00:39:27] Zach Weinersmith: how these things are?
[00:39:27] My, so I, this, this is getting toward the edge of my expertise, my understanding it would be, it would be literally temporary, but it would still be like a million years worth of atmosphere. So you Oh, I see. You don't have a little time
[00:39:36] Jordan Harbinger: to work it out. Right. So time to figure. Yeah. Buys us some time to figure it out.
[00:39:39] That's. Actually really kind of cool. Yeah. Just to think you could do something like that. I guess you have to do that before you put anything else on Mars because it's gonna be like explosion, like the world has never seen to try and do that to a planet. It seems like something else could go wrong. Like, so it worked, but now Mars is on a different orbit and we definitely can't colonize it because it's way further out or something now, or it's turned weird.
[00:40:04] I don't know. That's one of those geoengineering things where you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube and then suddenly you realize it was a huge mistake and now you've gotta solve that problem. Yeah.
[00:40:12] Zach Weinersmith: And there, there are also, there are people, and I, I feel complicated about this, but who would say, you know, we only have one Mars and it's like a record of everything that's ever happened here.
[00:40:20] And if we, if we changed it drastically, we would just lose all this, you know, potential information
[00:40:25] Jordan Harbinger: forever. Yeah, that's a valid argument in many ways, I suppose. That said. The question is, how much do we care about that versus colonizing another planet successfully? I don't know. Yeah, that's a tough
[00:40:36] Zach Weinersmith: calculation.
[00:40:37] I, I think it's a really tough question actually. I mean, so the moon to me is the more interesting example because the moon is a, like, it's just like a rock. I know that's like a stupid thing to say, but meaning Yeah. How dare you. How do, yeah. But like everything that has happened to earth has happened to the moon, right?
[00:40:51] It's been there with us for eons and eons and eons. So there are records of what has happened to our planet that are gone from our planet because we have, you know, climate and life and the movement of oceans and things that information is so to speak, embedded in the moon. Yeah. Fossilized essentially, right?
[00:41:05] Yeah. Yeah. And so, you know, some of these proposals for tearing up huge parts of the surface of the moon for minerals. I don't think they're plausible in general, but I do think it's worth considering the scientific aspects.
[00:41:15] Jordan Harbinger: Let's talk about mining, 'cause people talk about asteroid mining and, well, I'm gonna get a bunch of, what is it, helium.
[00:41:24] Three from the surface of the, I, I don't really even know what that is, but tell me about that, the valuable elements of the moon. Why, why is that not a thing that you think is possible?
[00:41:34] Zach Weinersmith: Right. So there's a couple things going on here. So yeah, we, we can talk about moon mining in particular and then I can try to expand out to the other places.
[00:41:41] So in order to justify getting something off the moon, it has to be extremely valuable. Like it has to be a small thing that's quite valuable because it is so expensive to go to the moon. Even with the modern price drops, like there's a lot of other stuff that has to go on. You still need a spacecraft and a lander and trained people and it's quite dangerous.
[00:41:59] In 2017, there's a scientist named Michelle Van Pelt and get this almost verbatim, but he said something like. If there were bars of gold on the surface of the moon, it would not be worth it to go get them. Really? Wow. So there's just not enough like density of value in gold? Maybe if there were like, you know, diamonds, I don't know what it would take, but the point is there's not.
[00:42:17] Right. So there's been this desire to find some reason to go to the moon, other than it just like showing up the Soviets or being generally awesome. And people just haven't come up with that much, I don't think anything that's convincing you will sometimes hear people say helium three. Yeah. Which, without getting into the details, uh, but it does come up a lot.
[00:42:33] What is it? You know, so there's helium, the usual helium, the stuff you get in a balloon is helium four. Yeah. Helium three just is a different amount of neutrons. It's what's called an isotope is just a different form of the same element, but it has certain qualities that make it useful. One, it has medical applications, it's just useful for some screenings we do.
[00:42:48] But the usual thing people say is that you could use it for a certain type of fusion drive. And I can get very nerdy about this, but I will just say, mm-Hmm. It's sort of like we already can't do it. Easier version of fusion, uh, that's in a lower temperature. So like scaling up to helium three fusion. Plus adding in that you have to get it from the moon is like showing off or something.
[00:43:08] It's like doing fusion like while doing a back flip, like why are we doing this? And so if you wanna get really nerdy, there's a paper we talk about in the book, but the basic deal is like it's for a spacey thing. We probably won't build and don't need to build and anyway, right now can't build. But also you can get helium three by other processes on earth without going to the moon.
[00:43:25] I think there's just a really strong desire for there to be some kind of moon economy 'cause it would be awesome. I think people queue a lot on the age of exploration. Like they have this idea that it'll be like the 16 hundreds or the 17 hundreds when people sail from Europe to India. But the difference is India was this vast, rich place full of people with awesome stuff and the moon just isn't.
[00:43:45] Jordan Harbinger: It's a big rock, like you said. So nonchalant, so callously,
[00:43:50] Zach Weinersmith: sorry. It's a cool rock. Yeah. And then so, so people, you know, someone out there is saying, okay, shut up about the moon, but the asteroids, there's whatever, $700 trillion worth of iron or whatever people wanna say. And in some sense that is literally true.
[00:44:03] Right? But you could also say that about like earth's core, which is made of
[00:44:06] Jordan Harbinger: iron
[00:44:06] Jordan Harbinger: nickel. Yeah. There's like 20 trillion tons of gold in the core. I made that number up. Right? It's something like that. It's just massive.
[00:44:13] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, so there's, there's more earth than there is massive asteroids.
[00:44:17] So almost by definition there's more value of stuff in the earth. But the point is it definitely has value if it can be got in a profit. And right now it is extraordinarily expensive. So people have this idea, 'cause they watch Star Wars. If you go to an asteroid belt, it's just a wash in these big potato shaped rocks and you need to go get one.
[00:44:32] Actual asteroids tend to be what are called rubble piles. They're these sort of loose agglomerations of dust and rock. They're very hard to capture or land on. Also, if you were on one to the extent you could be on one with, with the microgravity, you wouldn't be able to see another one. Typically, they're quite sparse on the human scale.
[00:44:48] Mm-Hmm. And, and the stuff in them is like regular stuff. Okay. There's not like one made of diamonds. The most valuable ones are they have what are called PGM Platinum group metals. So just imagine there's a high concentration of platinum, and so that sounds very tempting, but there's still low concentration.
[00:45:02] In general. You still have to refine out these rocks to get this platinum. There's just not that many of these super desirable ones that are relatively getable and valuable, and so it's, it is just not really a serious industry. Maybe one day if we're like awesome at space and we wanna build giant spaceships, it is handy that there's already mass that's outside of Earth's gravity pole, but that's it.
[00:45:23] The idea that we're going to get rich 'cause of asteroids, I think is not serious.
[00:45:26] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that, that always sort of struck me as something that didn't make a ton of sense, but I thought, oh, maybe there's stuff on there that we really can't get. I did some research for an episode on gold, and I just remembered the statistic is there's enough gold in earth's core to coat every bit of land on earth with a 20 inch thick layer of gold.
[00:45:46] So you don't need to go anywhere other than the core of the earth for gold. I guess the question is, is it easier to get to the core of the earth and refine that stuff than it is to go to Mars and or to the moon or or an asteroid? And honestly, I don't have the answer to that. My gut says yes, but I don't have a clue.
[00:46:03] So my guess is not worth anything.
[00:46:05] Zach Weinersmith: The other big thing to note there though is if we had all that gold, it would not mean we were all rich. Right? 'cause the, the value of gold would go to nothing. Yeah, it'd crash, right? Yeah. So we use the example of like, so if you go back 200 years, aluminum is really valuable.
[00:46:17] The tip of the Washington Monument to this day is aluminum. 'cause that used to be fancy, right? Right. But then industrial processes made it cheap and that's great. Like airplanes use aluminum. I'm the microphone. I've talked to him, I'm sure uses aluminum. Aluminum is awesome. But it doesn't mean like I have like aluminum foil in my kitchen.
[00:46:32] It doesn't make me rich. It makes my life better. But it doesn't end poverty. Like people cement.
[00:46:36] Jordan Harbinger: What'd you show off with your aluminum? I have aluminum foil in my kitchen. I threw some away yesterday. That's right. Trash. I, I did this fricking guy. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, gold has industrial uses, especially when it comes to space.
[00:46:49] 'cause it doesn't corrode and all that stuff. But if you suddenly have another, let's say trillion tons, you got 5% of the gold outta the earth's core and you have a trillion tons of it. Now it's. You're making Coke cans on of gold 'cause Exactly. It's so damn cheap.
[00:47:02] Zach Weinersmith: And we're all better off in that world.
[00:47:03] Right? But the idea that poverty is over or that you can just like take the raw number, whatever that is, worth the quadrillion dollars and say that like it's as if we got that money, it doesn't work that way.
[00:47:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Actually, I'd love to know more about the economics of mining and extracting resources in space.
[00:47:18] Because even if, let's say we get a good modular nuclear reactor up there and we we're ready to build, where do we get raw materials and building materials? Do we have to ship them from Earth or are we able to rip stuff outta the ground on Mars or the moon and use that? Is there metal in there or is it just like, no, you've gotta fricking FedEx this stuff from Alabama like everybody else.
[00:47:42] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. So if you have to boost it from Earth, that's really bad. The usual proposals are what's called ISRU in C two resource utilization, just meaning a used local stuff. And there's a kind of danger here, right? Okay. So the moon has titanium, has magnesium, has silicon, has all sorts of stuff. There was a, a thing that made a splash recently were some people at Blue Origin, which is Jeff Bezos's Rocket Company.
[00:48:05] Mm-Hmm. Made solar panels using this little machine that used, I guess, you know, moon like soil. The problem is it's incredibly energy intensive to do a lot of this stuff. I'm not saying it can't be done, it is going to be quite tricky, but yeah, I mean, so part of why we're pro Mars, if you are going to do a space settlement is that Mars has everything you need.
[00:48:25] So as I said a minute ago, moon is carbon, poor human bodies are about 20% carbon. Plants are, are generally higher than that. And for people who don't remember high school physics, you can't just get more carbon. You can't like shape stuff into carbon. Carbon is made in the stars. You have what you have. So if you have to boost carbon from earth to the moon, you're just, it's not gonna work.
[00:48:45] It's like having to boost a farm rather than ameliorating local soil. Right? Yeah. Whereas Mars has what you need. Now, I get frustrated sometimes 'cause people will say there's titanium, therefore we can have titanium structures. But like, ugh, titanium is really hard to work with that you actually need a whole sort of industrial facility if you're going to make this work.
[00:49:01] Which is, I'm not saying you can't do it on Mars, it's just gonna be extremely difficult. And, and you know, we never talk about earth like this. So like the, I'm looking at my backyard. There's absolutely some amount of titanium in the soil here. That doesn't mean I can have I-beams made of titanium. Right.
[00:49:17] You know, on earth, when we talk about getting metals, we find places where it's at high concentration. Even for something like aluminum, we look for box site right as a precursor
[00:49:25] Jordan Harbinger: and then we say, okay, it's gonna be mine in West Virginia, shipped off to China for refining that is gonna get shipped off to three more countries wrapped in plastic every single time to take advantage of their expertise and economies of scale.
[00:49:38] And you have to transport all that to another planet, which is not, again, not impossible, but just we often forget that like the Apple store doesn't make your iPhone.
[00:49:49] Zach Weinersmith: It's, it's such a good point actually. So very late in writing this book, we were talking to a developmental economist about this, so usually when people talk about the space economy, they talk about resources and he said, you know, you should see this report from the World Bank, which says 97.5%, I think it was, of all human wealth is not in natural resources.
[00:50:08] Right, and, and natural resources in the sense of like stuff in the ground, not things like rainforest or whatever, right? So about two and a half percent of all of our wealth is that, that kind of stuff. And actually 90% of that is fossil fuels, which don't exist in space. People tend to drastically overestimate the importance of minerals, I think, because you go to the gas pump and it like kills you when it's up 50 cents.
[00:50:28] But then you pick up your iPhone, which is made of like, you know, plastic and a little glass and is of extraordinary valuable. And, and you don't think about how cheap it is. But actually, like most of the wealth we have is those processes you just described where you have like factories and you have people with ideas and you have these complex processes for making microchips.
[00:50:44] That's where the money is. You know, the minerals, you gotta have 'em 'cause stuff has to be made of stuff. But it's not where most, I feel like this is like one of the most optimistic facts I ever heard. It's like, like the real wealth humans have is just coming up with stuff and making institutions for building
[00:50:57] Jordan Harbinger: things.
[00:50:57] That's actually a bonus, right? Because that means because we can ship our ideas. That's one of the easier things to communicate or move to another place, I guess, if you really think about it, but it's not quite all the raw material that we actually need to succeed. You mentioned growing food and space and how difficult this is.
[00:51:16] I guess quantity would be tough. You mentioned the biosphere. Two people working on the farm six hours a day just to make starvation level rations. What about actual nutrition? Because let's say you're, you're managing to grow all these plants and whatnot, you still, were they growing animals there and slaughtering them and getting enough nutrition?
[00:51:33] Or was it like they're just existing on soy? That's
[00:51:35] Zach Weinersmith: a great question. So the truth is, I should say, um, biosphere two probably could have been optimized a lot. So without getting into the details, it was kind of run by these crazy Captain Planet types, hippies know beyond hippies, like proto Silicon Valley kind of zany.
[00:51:50] Jordan Harbinger: this is the eighties when they ran that,
[00:51:52] Zach Weinersmith: was this the eighties or the nineties? Nineties, but okay. They're part of a group that kind of comes outta the late sixties and early seventies, sort of proto Silicon Valley.
[00:51:59] Jordan Harbinger: Um, it sounds like some, what is it as, so like Redwood forest culty types, and they're like, whoa, let's live in a biosphere.
[00:52:05] Zach Weinersmith: They were called the Synergists. They lived on a ranch. You can look it up. It was, it was like that. Yeah. And so biosphere was about three acres, only about a half an acre was what's called intensive agriculture. The rest was like a. Biomes, like they had a ghost forest or ghost desert. I don't really know what it is.
[00:52:21] Uh, they had like a coral reef, I guess it's very captive planet. So by the end, they were actually moving ag stuff into those zones. So there probably was a lot of optimization to do. Um, they did have animals, but they actually had a lot of trouble with animals. So, for example, this is a true story. They wanted to have pigs.
[00:52:37] They were gonna have potbelly pigs because pot belly pigs are like a small manageable pig. But then it was like that period where potbelly pigs were like everybody's favorite pet. And so they thought the PR would be bad. Oh yeah. Yeah. They got this other type of pig, I forget from where there was like a pygmy species, but it was just kind of wild and I guess it ran around killing stuff.
[00:52:54] So they ended up eating them and so I, I go down the line. They had other problems. At one point, the crew, which was an all white crew, I. And I only mentioned that because they were eating tarot. They're grown tarot. They didn't know how to process it. So they're like slightly poisoning themselves. What is that?
[00:53:08] Tarot? Oh, it's a root. Oh, Tarro. Tarro. I'm sorry. Yeah, I'm saying
[00:53:11] Jordan Harbinger: it Ryan. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, you're, or you're saying it right and I say it wrong. Um, Tarro. Yeah. That like potatoe crap that Taiwanese people love to put in their bubble tea. Yeah,
[00:53:21] Zach Weinersmith: yeah, yeah, yeah. Unfamiliar stuff. Yeah.
[00:53:23] Jordan Harbinger: It's good stuff. I do not like that for the record.
[00:53:25] Oh, don't gimme a tea tarot in it. No, thanks. My wife loves it. Get a little
[00:53:28] Zach Weinersmith: potato in your drink. Drinking
[00:53:30] Jordan Harbinger: potato. It's no. What are you doing? Way to ruin, you can ruin any meal with that potatoes included
[00:53:35] Zach Weinersmith: for that matter. Yeah. So you, yeah, it's funny. Uh, you have to process it a little or it's toxic, right?
[00:53:41] It's just like a lot of foods when you get it fresh, uh, or raw, it needs a little work. They didn't know that. They were all, I think American and British. And this was like the nineties before, like food was good and they, uh, had to actually call someone. They got connected to a guy like in Puerto Rico, had a recipe and then it was okay.
[00:53:58] So there were a lot of kind of like little stupid things. Hmm. So nowadays, if we reran the experiment, probably what you do is have it be almost entirely intensive agriculture, assuming that could support enough oxygen. Then you might not bring any animals. So as a general rule, the bigger the animal, the less, less efficient it is at like converting input to output.
[00:54:17] So in other words, like to get a whole cow worth of meat takes a huge, huge, if you've ever seen cows grazing, they just all day long just to get this one cow. It's insane. Whereas if you wanna to survive off crickets, if you could stomach it, it's much more efficient. Crickets
[00:54:32] Jordan Harbinger: aren't that bad. I've eaten many insects, you know, in Japan or whatever.
[00:54:36] Yeah, it's fine. I wouldn't necessarily want it every day. I wouldn't want anything every day. But if I were starving, you could eat cricket. If I had to choose crickets or tarot, I'm
[00:54:47] Zach Weinersmith: choosing crickets. That is a bold choice. That's the thing that's gonna piss everyone off, is that's where the email
[00:54:52] Jordan Harbinger: people are gonna start emailing me cricket based foods and you know what, I'm here
[00:54:55] Jordan Harbinger: it.
[00:54:55] Send it to me. I'll send you my address. Yeah,
[00:54:57] Zach Weinersmith: yeah. My, my daughter, when she was four, she tried crickets and she was like, these are great, the heads are really crunchy. And I was like, I can't even watch you roast crickets. This like, oh my god, you
[00:55:05] Jordan Harbinger: can eat things like that though. Like I, when I was in Cambodia, I said I was hungry and the girls I was with decided to sort of play, I guess you'd call it a trick.
[00:55:13] They went and they bought me a big paper bag full of tarantulas. There you go. Like roasted tarantula. And you know what? They were good. They were really good. I was quite hungry and possibly a little bit drunk, but I ate a whole bag of tarantulas. That's crazy that they probably bought off the roadside and I, God knows where that guy got 'em and I didn't get sick.
[00:55:31] Yeah, you could live on that kind of stuff. An algae and things like that, I would imagine would play a large part in ecosystems like this, just because it's so here on earth you grow it by accident, you're trying to get rid of
[00:55:42] Zach Weinersmith: it. Yeah. Actually, algae's an interesting one. Yeah. So there, there was actually a Soviet Union experiment where they tried to live only off, it was a type of algae, I believe it was called chlorella.
[00:55:52] And apparently you could literally in some sense do this 'cause they have protein and fat and they make oxygen. Huh. But like the people hated it so much they never did it again. 'cause they're just like, nobody wants to live off algae. Yeah. Yeah. So there, there is something to account for there, which is like, you, you don't wanna optimize too much.
[00:56:06] 'cause eventually the humans are not happy that you, they've been optimized on. But yeah, actually very typical proposal is to go vegan if people don't wanna eat bugs because it's just so much more efficient to grow something like soy than to have animals. But I, I do think there's like a reasonable trade off because I am a vegetarian so I like, you know, I'm down for this.
[00:56:22] But for a lot of people they, they do want that variety. If you go back to old polar missions, like polar explorations in Antarctica where they were like up there for years, it's very important to have variety of like flavor and texture for people to be happy. Mm. So there is a kind of trade off against optimization there.
[00:56:40] Jordan Harbinger: This is the Jordan Harbinger show with our guest Zach Weiner Smith. We'll be right back. We. This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help. As the new year rolls in, we're bombarded with messages about transforming ourselves, but how about a different approach for 2024? Let's celebrate what's already great about us.
[00:56:55] I'm holding onto certain parts of my routine firmly. Top of the list, four days a week workouts. Also, I'm gonna double down on Mandarin. I've been doing this for like 11 years. My vocabulary probably peaked five years ago. I wanna advance a little bit this year. So let's talk therapy. It's a powerful tool, not just for overcoming challenges, but for recognizing your strengths and making meaningful changes.
[00:57:13] Therapy teaches you to cope positively and set sound boundaries. It's for everyone who wants to sharpen their mental wellbeing. So if you've been thinking about therapy, but keep giving yourself excuses not to start. Here's a little nudge to give a better help a try. It's completely online tailored to your schedule.
[00:57:27] You fill out a questionnaire, get paired with a licensed therapist, and remember, you can switch therapists anytime. No extra charge.
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[00:59:09] Now for the rest of my conversation with Zach Weiner Smith. What about humans being able to live in different gravity? You sort of touched on this earlier in the show. How long has anyone been in space? Do we know if anybody could live longer than that record? 'cause I assume it's not 10 years, it's probably like two years or something.
[00:59:28] Zach Weinersmith: It's an open question. So the longest day ever was by a cosmonaut named Paul ov. He stayed up for 37 consecutive days. I think the record for total days across multiple missions is somewhere in the eight hundreds. It would've also been done by Soviet cosmonauts. 37
[00:59:43] Jordan Harbinger: days. That's it. 437 days. Oh, 437.
[00:59:45] Yeah. Sorry. Okay. I was like 37 days. No, that doesn't sound like that long. Okay. 400. That's still though, in the scheme of things. Not that long, right? He was up there for a year. Not that long. Yeah. And change. That's a long time objectively. But if you're like, we're gonna go live on Mars and have a family, that's nothing.
[01:00:00] It's nothing.
[01:00:01] Zach Weinersmith: Uh, so that's in what's called microgravity, just you can think of it as no gravity. Reliably that does all sorts of bad things to your body. Notably, you lose something like 1% of bone density in your hips per month, ooh, very quickly. And so you also lose muscle strength very quickly. Right now, astronauts, they do like two, three hours of exercise six days a week just to kind of keep it from getting worse than that, but it does get worse.
[01:00:25] You reliably lose vision in space. This is one of the lesser known things about space, is that people are actually sent up with glasses to adjust to the expected vision loss, and that doesn't come back. It's just a thing that happens
[01:00:36] Jordan Harbinger: in space. Wait, what? You lose vision? Yeah. In your eyes. Why? We don't know.
[01:00:40] Zach Weinersmith: Uh, the thought is when you go to space, so your body right, is used to pumping blood around and you don't think about it, but like, it's hard to pump blood from your feet. It's easier to pump blood near your heart, right? Mm-Hmm. So your body's used to this complex system of pumping blood around this, you know, a person who's, you know, two meters tall, pillar of liquid, right?
[01:00:57] Mm-Hmm. When you go to space, that confuses your body. If you look at astronauts, they often kind of have baby faces. That's because fluid shifts upward, right? So you, they actually call it puffy face. They also have a term chicken legs, right? So the fluid comes outta your legs. You can lose something like 30% of your, your fluid volume in your legs very quickly.
[01:01:14] Oh wow. You actually also end up, astronauts have to pee a lot because your body gets really confused. All of a sudden there's all this fluid in your upper body. What's going on? Anyway, what that has to do with vision maybe, I think my understanding is it's still not well understood, but it's possible. All that fluid pressure going up is somehow messing with the feeding system for your eyes and it's causing some kind of damage.
[01:01:33] Wow. Or distortion of the shape, but we, we don't know what's extra ominous. There is, there's equivocal evidence, meaning just like we don't know for sure. There's maybe some evidence that there are negative cognitive effects like you would lose, like, so to speak, this is a dumb way to say it, but like you'd lose a couple IQ points for every so often you spend in space.
[01:01:48] Wow. Meaning like if that nerve damage is just in the eyes, that's not great, but Okay. But if it's some sort of overall nerve damage, that's really freaky. If you start to imagine 10, 20, 30 years in space. Right. Also,
[01:01:59] Jordan Harbinger: if it's damaging our eyes and we know that because our vision gets worse. What's it doing to my brain that I have no idea is happening or my liver or other parts of my body where I'm not like, Hey, this is darker and I didn't have that blind spot that's happening in other areas that you just don't realize.
[01:02:14] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Not only that, but I would add, so I'm giving you a story about the pressure shift, but other stuff that's going on as you're getting a higher rate of doses of radiation. Yeah. Let's talk about radiation for sure. Yeah. Yeah. So the short version is when you're sitting down here on earth, you're protected by the atmosphere from radiation and by the magnetosphere, which is, you know, earth is a giant magnet and so it slams these, uh, hot ionizing bits of radiation into the poles.
[01:02:36] And so instead of getting extra radiation, you just get little Aurora shows at the poles. Mm-Hmm. Which is a pretty sweet deal in the International Space Station. You don't have that. You have some protection there from the magnetosphere. Uh, if you go out towards the moon, you don't get that. But so the basic deal is you are generally getting a higher dose of radiation, of types you don't normally get on earth.
[01:02:54] And there's also some risk now. And then the sun sort of belches out blasts of high intensity radiation. And if you happen to be caught in the beam, you could be in real trouble. You could die of acute radiation sickness, which I would just say is one of the worst ways I can imagine dying. It's very unlikely, but it is there.
[01:03:11] So there's other stuff, right? So the atmosphere is also high in carbon. It's fairly different from an earth atmosphere. So meaning if we find cognitive decline, it could be from a variety of stuff, it could even be due to persistent stress or combinations of these different things. We don't know. But one thing I wanted to add is to kind of like push back against my own point though.
[01:03:27] This is really important. This is all on the International Space Station where you're in microgravity. On the moon, you would be at something like one sixth Earth gravity on Mars would be something like 40% earth gravity. So that might stop or slow down some of the effects, but we just really don't know.
[01:03:41] Jordan Harbinger: What's this about astronauts, they report seeing flashes that people on earth can't see what's going on there. That's kind of scary actually.
[01:03:48] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. So, um, I'm trying to remember. I think the first report from this by an American, might've been John Glenn, but don't quote me on it. But basically just seeing like these little flashes and it's thought what's going on is just there are parts where you're experiencing these high levels of radiation as you zoom around in orbit.
[01:04:02] So you, the, you know, persistently hear stories of people, even with their eyes closed, seeing these flashes. Hmm. We are all, we are apes. We're evolved from the surface down here, you know, and space is just not gonna behave nicely for us. Wow.
[01:04:13] Jordan Harbinger: So it's almost like, remember back in the day you'd have a cell phone and it would be next to a speaker, like a radio in your house and it would go and you go, my phone's about to ring.
[01:04:22] That's what this reminds me of. Your eyes are picking up some sort of interference that normally when they're not right next to outside the atmosphere, closer to the sun or whatever the, or supernova. They don't experience this, but now you're outside of that Faraday cage or whatever that we have on earth and you're picking up all kinds of stuff.
[01:04:41] 'cause the antennae are designed to function on earth, not in space. Where we would've evolved to, our brain would've just decided we don't see those flashes or whatever.
[01:04:49] Zach Weinersmith: That's right. That's a good way to say it. Yeah. We're evolved for this.
[01:04:51] Jordan Harbinger: That's really somehow that's disturbing that you're getting hit by stuff and you can see, I don't know, that's sort of eerie.
[01:04:59] And there's gonna be a lot of that stuff that they're gonna discover, I suppose, when they go to space. So back to radiation on bodies and technology, solar flares are, those things suck on earth and I don't, again, I don't know what they are, so maybe explain what they are, but don't they destroy electronics and they can, if we have a big one, it can take the whole grid down and all this stuff.
[01:05:16] Yeah. So we, we
[01:05:17] Zach Weinersmith: put a little bit story in, I think 1859. So you, you sort of imagine the sun just firing off radiation in some direction. And fortunately space is big. So if you're in a spaceship, it just probably doesn't hit you. But if it does, you're in trouble. And now, and then one of these smacks into earth.
[01:05:35] So in 1859 there was a really big one, and this is, you have to think like early in the age where people are even thinking about electronics, right? And so there are these stories of like telegraph stations just suddenly like sparking for no reason. And just problems around the planet with like these electrical surges.
[01:05:51] It's like not great in 1859, and it would be maybe worse now, but it'd be really scary if you were in a technology dependent habitat. Mm-Hmm. On the moon or Mars. And I should say that, you know, the solution to this is almost certainly the same as we talked about earlier, which is just living underground forever.
[01:06:09] Uh, yeah. Instead of in a shining, uh, Mars dome.
[01:06:12] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Oh my. How do we shield ourselves from radiation? I, I, there's radiation shielding, I guess, but when I go to the dentist, they put that lead blanket over me. That's probably not something you can build over your entire city in
[01:06:23] Zach Weinersmith: space. Yeah. I mean, you know, of course in principle you could.
[01:06:26] Yeah. So part of why lead is good as just lead is very dense. Right. So it's hard for stuff to get through. But yeah, so you know, I said, we'll, we'll use dirt. There are kind of, you know, more high tech solutions. There are these special materials that are especially good at absorbing radiation. If you know anything about nuclear reactors, they often use boron to catch neutrons, which are bad stuff if they smack into you.
[01:06:47] So you can use boron related compounds to absorb radiation. The problem is essentially, anytime you're not using local mass, you're having to carry it all the way out of earth's gravity well, or wherever, you know, over to where you're going. So ideally, almost all proposals call for just figuring out some way to deal with the local dirt.
[01:07:04] If you're in a spaceship, that's a different question again, right? So if you're the, the trip to Mars is like six months inbound, six months outbound. I think usually what you'd say is for the radiation that's in the background, you're just gonna deal with it and probably some increased risk of cancer. If there's a flare, you could have like a panic room, like you could have a like.
[01:07:21] A small area that was lined with some sort of protective material. Mm-Hmm. So it wouldn't use up that much mass and everybody would just sort of run to it until the storm was over. It's kind of terrifying. But it's better than acute radiation
[01:07:31] Jordan Harbinger: poisoning. Right. So an air raid siren would go off and instead of grabbing your gas mask, if you're an Israeli, you'll know.
[01:07:37] Right. You'd grab your gas mask. This would be like, oh, we gotta go to the radiation room because there's a storm. So everybody's got their little shelter there for that and the bathroom and uh, I don't know, some board games or whatever to pass the time. Yeah,
[01:07:50] Zach Weinersmith: yeah. I don't have the numbers in front of you, but I believe you'd get very short notice.
[01:07:53] 'cause you there's like going to be some preliminaries from the sun before the ions hit you. But I don't think there's a lot of time.
[01:07:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yikes. Yeah. Yeah. That's not great. That's not great. I suppose if it doesn't kill you right away, it's just like, ah, I got hit by the last one, but I, and I, I make it to the shelter 70% of the time.
[01:08:08] I'm sorry. No, but
[01:08:09] Zach Weinersmith: that's the worst thing about radiation poisoning is like if you get really blasted by radiation, like some guys did in the early days fiddling with uranium and stuff. Like, you know, you're gonna die a while before it happens. Yeah. 'cause your, your tissues are sort of slowly just going to degrade and fall apart.
[01:08:23] Jordan Harbinger: Sloughing off. Ugh. Gross. Yeah. Tell me about regolith. This is what? Space Dirt. Space
[01:08:28] Zach Weinersmith: Dirt, yeah. So regolith comes from the root words, meaning blanket of rock. So yeah, this is really important. So you look at the surface of the moon. It looks like it's just dust, but it's actually, if you put it under a microscope, it looks, a lot of, it looks like little tiny knives, which is not, not what happens when you do that on earth.
[01:08:43] And the difference is that you remember that the moon doesn't have weather, right? It doesn't have running water, it doesn't have life or anything. So the surface is just kind of naked to stuff. So if, uh, you imagine like a heavy rock from space smashes the surface, heats it, fuses it. Then uh, another one comes later, does the same thing, but now it shatters that does this over and over and over and over.
[01:09:03] And there's also radiation, pelting, all this stuff. And you imagine this just going on for eons and eons and eons. So it's a much more like shattered glass and rock than it is just like sand on the beach. The result of that is a couple things. So the astronauts from the Apollo program landed, they described it almost like it was alive 'cause it was static charged and very clingy, right?
[01:09:20] So we'd get up in equipment and when people breathed it in, I remember, I think Harrison Schmidt, who was on Apollo 17 said it was like he had an allergic reaction to it. The concern and we don't, we just don't know. But the concern is that if you breathe this stuff long enough, you might get something similar to what's called stone grinder's disease, which you can imagine how that comes about.
[01:09:39] But the result of it is intense. Lung scarification over time means that it basically becomes very hard to breathe, very energy intensive just to breathe. It's very bad, very awful disease to get. And so it's possible exposure to Regolith is gonna do that to you. You can also imagine what effects it might have on equipment.
[01:09:56] Part of the problem is we, the grand total of time that people spend walking around the mood is something like two weeks. Right? We did it all in a very brief period, not for very long. So we really don't know much about long-term medical effects of this stuff, but it's probably something you do not want to interact with.
[01:10:10] Jordan Harbinger: It sounds like it could get all goopy and possibly get into machinery and things like, I mean like sand does that too. Yeah. Yeah. This sounds almost worse 'cause it's not smoothed out by weather and atmosphere. And I guess if stuff also cakes on. It starts to insulate, which may or may not be a good thing.
[01:10:28] I mean, we're talking about using it as an insulator for radiation here, but there's other cases where you don't want that. Yeah,
[01:10:33] Zach Weinersmith: yeah, yeah. So part of why space suits are white is because that's to reflect heat, right? Just like when it's summer and you're told to wear your like white shirt, that's the same reason.
[01:10:42] And so, whereas Regolith is this kind of plaster gray color, so if it gets caked on all over the suit, you can get heating problems and that's dangerous. And yeah. Uh, there's a story, I, I forget which a poly mission it was, but they landed and they actually picked up a robotic probe that had been sent years earlier.
[01:10:57] It was called surveyor, surveyor three, and they said it looked like it had been sandblasted. Now, in fairness, that's probably because their rocket shot a lot of the reiff at it. But still, it's like, that's, that's what this stuff does. It's like gritty sand. It's probably quite dangerous. And the, and the basic upshot of this is just gonna be a huge problem all the time and how it'll have to
[01:11:15] Jordan Harbinger: be dealt with.
[01:11:16] Alright, now my family's here for the holidays, which makes me wonder. Just how many humans do we need in a population before we have no risk of inbreeding?
[01:11:24] Zach Weinersmith: Ah, very. Yeah. Didn't think that was the direction that was, uh, going. No. So I'm sure you didn't, this is an old question. Questions like this usually come up in conservation biology, right?
[01:11:35] So when there's like, there's four and a half of this species of rhinos left, can we save them? And the usual answer is, if it's that low, the answer is no. A general rule of thumb, and it's very rule of thumb among conservation biologists is about 500 is, is how many you need. It can get a little complicated because, you know, it depends on how related those 500 are and a bunch of other factors.
[01:11:53] But the very short version of this is there've been a lot of models built by space geeks mostly to see like, well, what would be the minimum number of humans we would need so that if we never had any more immigration Mm-Hmm. We'd have a shot at not eventually succumbing to M Reading. And the lowest number we found was 98.
[01:12:11] The more typical numbers are in the like 5,000 to like 30,000 range. Mm-Hmm. And I should say 98 was not a joke, but like it was a science project, which was like, what is the absolute minimum? And it depended on essentially like a computer telling everybody who to meet with and how many kids to have.
[01:12:26] Right. Preserve, preserve genetic. Yeah. You know, and also assumes nothing ever goes wrong, uh, which is, you know, probably not
[01:12:32] Jordan Harbinger: a great assumption. Yeah, right. That's a good point. You, you have to have some small amount of immigration or just genetic engineering to the point where they can be like, all right, normally this would cause a problem, but we're going in and we're going over your DNA with a fine tooth comb and we're putting this test tube baby together for you.
[01:12:47] Yeah, yeah, totally. It's gonna have to be something like that.
[01:12:49] Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, so you can get into these sci-fi solutions, so there's another solution, which is where you can freeze dry male gametes. I mean, like men are basically worthless. You just, you send all only women and a supply, like a library of male gametes, and then you can introduce genetic diversity that way.
[01:13:05] The basic downside being like. You have to enforce this, which, you know, gets dystopian very quickly. Right. So, I don't know, there, there are a lot of sort of gadget solutions to genetic diversity. I think they're probably bad ideas. 'cause you know, trying to convince your kids like you should obey the computer's of mating selection algorithm.
[01:13:20] That's gonna be a tough
[01:13:21] Jordan Harbinger: conversation. Yeah, that's, that's a tough one. You thought Romeo and Juliet was rough way to the AI's telling you who you can mate with. I mean, I guess it would almost be like you pick your partner based on who you want, but then you just don't actually, what is it? Was that movie Demolition Man?
[01:13:35] Like you don't actually do any Right. Real mating at all. Everyone's sterilized or whatever. Right. And you just make babies and test tubes only that is dystopian. That's pretty out there. Alright, I know we're running outta time. Is it legal? For Elon Musk or the United States or China to colonize space in the first place.
[01:13:54] I know space law is a thing. Is space a commons? I don't even know if that's the case or not. Right?
[01:13:59] Zach Weinersmith: The short version is there's a document called the Outer Space Treaty. All the big powers have agreed to it since 1967. It says you countries cannot claim chunks of space. It's very clear. Article two says it in plain language, you cannot claim chunks of space.
[01:14:12] The US Contra what Newt Gingrich proposed once cannot claim the moon. As a state, that would be an assertion of national sovereignty over the moon, which you can't do. Nor can Elon Musk independently say, I'm not part of Earth. I'm my own state on the moon. That would still violate international law. You might say, that's fine 'cause he's Elon Musk and he is allowed to do what he wants.
[01:14:30] I think that's pretty questionable, but whatever. But yeah, it, it is absolutely against the rules. Space is supposed to be regulated as a commons. People sometimes debate exactly what that means. It at least means that there are no national territories, right? So China cannot claim a chunk of the moon is China.
[01:14:46] They could set up a base and they could even be fairly exclusive about it, but they cannot literally claim sovereignty over it.
[01:14:53] Jordan Harbinger: The other issue here is space law, much like international law, it's just not really super enforceable outside of what you would, I guess, earth-based conflict. Right? And, and add to it that space powers are nuclear powers generally, I think without exception, now that I think about it, we risk nuclear conflict on Earth or, yeah, well, nuclear conflicts on earth if we try to compete for space resources.
[01:15:14] So if China goes and says, you know, we rescind our acceptance of this treaty, or we're doing this, but it doesn't count, it's a, we get a loophole. The US is gonna go, okay, fine. Well we're blockading your Navy on earth because no. We disagree
[01:15:27] Zach Weinersmith: the way I think about it. So people will sometimes say, you know, international law is not like domestic law 'cause there's no police who are gonna like, put you in country jail.
[01:15:34] Mm-hmm. When you are a bad country. Right? That's true. One way you can think of it is sort of like gang warfare, right? So like gangs, you know, there is no overarching law 'cause they're, they're outside the law. They still have conventions between each other and there are still behaviors that are not done.
[01:15:48] And that, you know, obviously has a lot to do with power, but it's still real. It doesn't disappear because you've identified that it's just the powerful nations enforcing their views, right? So the international law that governs spaces generally agreed upon by the most powerful countries. And I think the thing to realize here is suppose Elon Musk did start his own city on Mars tomorrow and claimed it was independent of Earth.
[01:16:09] It's not just that that would violate the international law. It would probably anger, say China and Russia a lot more than it would anger Western powers. I think Western Powers would still be frustrated. But the idea of setting up a liberal west aligned nation on Mars, assuming that's what Elon Musk would want to do, would would obviously be more offensive to certain parts of the planet than others.
[01:16:28] So the geopolitics would be more complicated than a kind of Mars law versus Earth law situation. So what
[01:16:33] Jordan Harbinger: is the best plan in your mind for colonizing something in space? Do we wait for more scientific leaps and then send people, and if so, what leaps are we waiting for nuclear fusion, or
[01:16:44] Zach Weinersmith: what else? Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[01:16:46] So we argue for what we call a wait and go big approach, which is wait, because there is a lot of science that needs to be done. We don't know enough about human reproduction to do this ethically. We don't know how to build these complex ecosystems. We really, we still need to scale the rockets quite a bit, but really we need that basic science of reproduction that's gonna take at least decades if someone started spending on it now, which they are not.
[01:17:07] We also, I think you could make a good argument that we meet, meet better legal structures. We could argue all day long about what that should be, but something that is less conducive to war than the system we have now. And then too, you'd want to go big and that obviously requires a lot of technology, but there's so many advantages to going big just to going to scale.
[01:17:24] Like we might have touched on this, but we have a chapter about the idea of space psychology and, and the short version is, you know, there's no evidence contrary to what people sometimes say that people go mad in space, but they do have regular psychiatric issues like anywhere else. Mm-Hmm. And so we need a big enough settlement that you can have regular division of labor.
[01:17:40] To take care of all these problems. We talk about some of the economics that are also helped by just scale. Probably it's the case that with ecosystem design, it gets easier at scale. Making an ecosystem functional at the size of a thimble is, is probably harder than uh, the size of a city. So if you can wait long enough to take this big approach, I think a whole lot of different problems get solved.
[01:18:00] And there's also just time to work out, you know, a lot of the really freaky stuff ethically, because if you have a world where, because of all the medical problems we discussed, there's a higher than normal rate of birth abnormality, but you're also in a world where everyone's considered to have to pull their own weight.
[01:18:14] That's like a potential nightmare scenario, right?
[01:18:17] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. You end up with some pretty horrible ideas on how, what to do about that,
[01:18:21] Zach Weinersmith: right? Yeah. And often people are surprisingly cool with it, and it's just like, this is a choice. Let's not make this choice. Let's wait until we can do it in a way that doesn't like create an evil space empire.
[01:18:32] I've had this conversation with people where it's just like, they'll be like, yeah, it's, it's probably gonna be a lot more authoritarian and dangerous, uh, on Mars. Like, why are we building an evil enemy on Mars?
[01:18:41] Jordan Harbinger: Uh, like completely incompatible, not just with American values, but with earth
[01:18:45] Zach Weinersmith: values. Yeah. Just basic human decency stuff, right?
[01:18:48] Yeah. Like, oh,
[01:18:48] Jordan Harbinger: when you have a child that's not born strong enough to withstand the environment and the pressure, you don't just murder them as a child and feed them to the rest of the team. We, for. Protein. Like, no, we, we don't do that. Oh well we're gonna have a problem here. Yeah. Like you thought, you think North Korea's bad, it's gonna make that place look like Disneyland.
[01:19:07] Totally. So it sounds like you think we should hold off for now. What is the timeline on a lot of this science? You mentioned decades and that's if people are spending now, which they aren't. So are we talking about like a hundred plus years from now? That would be
[01:19:18] Zach Weinersmith: my guess. I mean, I always wanna say you mentioned like nuclear fusion.
[01:19:21] You know, there is some world in which next week we have advanced AI and it showers us with insights and everything changes. But with, with what I see now, especially given that some of these problems are biological and have to do with human medicine, which means we have to go slow, I think at least decades, if not centuries, is the timelines we should be thinking about.
[01:19:39] First settlement. I mean, if you're talking about putting a cool base on the moon, that could be done in 10 years. I don't know if it will be, but the technology's there. But trying to have families, generations like having to really settle and make a new life for humanity somewhere else that's centuries.
[01:19:53] Jordan Harbinger: Zach, thank you so much. By the way, what we're gonna get emails about is people going there already is a base on Mars. I've got that. You're just talking about it. Oh God. That's what we're gonna get. Emails about it. It's slid in right at the end of the show. That's where the kooks are gonna come from.
[01:20:05] Lemme tell you, Zach, thank you very much, man. I really appreciate you doing the show. This is fascinating stuff. There's no getting around it.
[01:20:11] Zach Weinersmith: Really interesting. Thank you very much.
[01:20:16] Jordan Harbinger: Now I've got some thoughts on this episode, but before we get into that, here's a sample of my interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
[01:20:23] We talk about why an interest in science serves every field of expertise from law to art, what our education should ideally train us for. Here's a quick look inside Walt
[01:20:34] Zach Weinersmith: Whitman. When I heard the learned astronomer, when the proofs, the figures were arranged in columns before me when I was shown the charts and diagrams to add, divide, and measure them.
[01:20:47] When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room, how soon unaccountable, I became tired and sick till rising and gliding out. I wandered off by myself into the mystical, moist night air, and from time to time looked up in perfect silence at the stars. It's the same curiosity you have as a kid, but I just have it as an adult.
[01:21:16] I've had it since childhood. You don't have to maintain it, you just have to make sure nothing interferes with it. So the counterpart to this would be, oh, sir, literate one, why ruin what something looks like by describing? It with words when I can see it fully with my eyes, your words just get in the way.
[01:21:36] I'd rather my mind float freely as I gaze upon something of interest than have the writer step in between me and it. And interpose is or her own interpretation. You don't know the thoughts that you're not having. What keeps me awake is wondering what questions I don't yet know to ask, because they would only become available to me after we discover what dark matter and dark energy is.
[01:21:58] Oh man. Because think about it. The fact that we even know how to ask that question, that's almost half the way there, but I wanna know the question that I can't know yet. What is the profound level of ignorance that will manifest after we answer the profound questions? We've been smart enough to pose thus far
[01:22:21] Jordan Harbinger: for more, including how science denial has gained a global foothold.
[01:22:24] What it'll take for the US to get to Mars before China and why it's dangerous for people to claim the Earth is flat. Check out episode 3 27 of the Jordan Harbinger Show with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I love stuff like this. This is one of those things that, well, most of us don't spend much time thinking about it, but I guess if we do, we never really take the time to do the math, so to speak.
[01:22:47] And so it was amazing to hear from somebody who did that and then brought receipts. We don't know actually if people can adopt psychologically to confined space spaces. You'd have to have a lot of room for folks to move around or people might just go nuts. What about mental illness and space? There's gonna be stuff we haven't even discovered yet that's unique to space.
[01:23:06] Medical issues in general. Medical treatment in space. Medications aren't gonna work the same 'cause you're not digesting the same anesthesia might not be available. Maybe it kills you because of who knows. Gravity, the oxygen con. I mean, we just don't know. You almost have to do or redo all medication testing and FDA clinical trials all over again with a space population that's in different gravity, different temperatures.
[01:23:30] I mean, that is just an insane undertaking. You can't even safely take aspirin up there probably. I mean, we don't really know yet. That's the thing. And what if somebody dies in space? It's never really happened other than when you lose the whole crew at once. But what if somebody just passes away from some kind of food poisoning or they have an accident?
[01:23:49] What do you do with them? And man, and on the other side of the coin space, pregnancy, has this ever happened? No. Certainly there've been no space births yet, but are they a citizen of the country that the parents are in? And what sort of facilities do we have? And can babies grow up during those developmental phases in less gravity than Earth?
[01:24:07] That seems like it's possibly a really, really, really bad
[01:24:11] Jordan Harbinger: Or at least if they're gonna ever come back to earth A terrible idea again. Don't know. Some folks argue that an endeavor like colonizing Mars will unify Earth, and I am looking at social media. Which is not really a great indicator, but hear Mihir, and I'm not so convinced, okay, space isn't gonna unify us.
[01:24:27] We do joint space things as a group of countries when things are already unified. We don't often get along with other countries because our values differ fundamentally. One of the reasons we didn't do joint space exercises with the Soviet Union is because we were concerned primarily with their human rights perspective, among other things.
[01:24:48] So the idea that we're then suddenly gonna be like, you know what? Let's put aside our differences and work with like North Korea on sending people to space, not to bloody likely. And do we wanna change our human rights perspective so that we can send people to space? Do we even need to do that? I think we can do this without unifying the earth.
[01:25:03] I just don't think that doing this is going to end up unifying the earth. It's just seems, uh, a little bit more farfetched than the science fiction of colonizing space in the first place. All things Zach Weiner Smith will be in the show email@example.com. You can also ask the AI chat bot on the website.
[01:25:19] Transcripts are in the show notes, advertisers deals, discount codes, ways to support the show, all at Jordan harbinger.com/deals. Please consider supporting those who support the show. By the way, all books are at Jordan harbinger.com/books. Even using those links also can help. We've also got our newsletter where every week the team and I dig into an older episode of the show, dissect the lessons from it.
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[01:25:55] I'm at Jordan Harbinger on Twitter, Instagram, or you can find me on LinkedIn. This show is created an association with Podcast one. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jace Sanderson, Robert Fogerty, mil OC Campo, Ian Baird and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is you share it with friends.
[01:26:12] When you find something useful or interesting, the greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. If you know somebody who's interested in space, colonizing space, all that stuff, definitely share this episode with 'em. I think they'll be into this. In the meantime, I hope you apply what you hear on the show so you can live what you learn, and we'll see you next time.
[01:26:31] This episode is sponsored in part by Court Junkie. If you're a fan of True Crime, check out Court Junkie. Court Junkie is a True Crime Podcast hosted by Jillian Jali that covers court cases and criminal trials. Learn about a nurse at a Texas hospital who is charged with murdering his patients. We did a show about that as well.
[01:26:47] Prosecutors claim he's a serial killer. But of course he says he's innocent. Hear from a local reporter who gives his perspective on the case and what happened to 13-year-old Dylan Redwine, Dylan's father. Mark went on trial last year for his murder, hear all of the important testimony from both the prosecution and the defense host Gillian Jali, who in my opinion, is very sharp and smart and interesting.
[01:27:06] She uses audio clips and interviews to focus on the facts of one true crime case per episode. In the end, the listener can decide, did the criminal justice system actually work? Subscribe to Court Junkie on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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